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As LeSean McCoy closes in on 10,000, he's setting his sights even higher

What drives LeSean McCoy?

If you thought you knew, think again.

McCoy’s original goal, back in 2009, was to survive eight years in the NFL. That sounded good for a running back drafted in the second round. But when he blew past that mark last season still going as strong as ever, McCoy upped his sights to 10 years and 10,000 rushing yards. He refers to that as his “10K chase,” and the team sells shirts depicting the milestone for $30 apiece.

But there’s one problem. Now that McCoy can take the field Sunday with his biggest career milestone in striking distance for the first time, it no longer feels sufficient.

McCoy wants more.

First on his updated list is 12,000 career rushing yards, or the 12K chase. McCoy likes the company that milestone would put him in.

Next is a Super Bowl ring. Achieving the ultimate team goal is the zenith for a professional athlete, and it could be the final line needed on McCoy’s Hall of Fame resume. Then he’d also like to reach 100 touchdowns, though that one might just be for the heck of it.

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After that, the 29-year-old running back says he’ll have to sit down and think up new things to achieve.

“Twelve is special because there’s only three backs that have 12,000 that aren’t in the Hall of Fame,” McCoy said after practice this week, before proceeding to rattle off the names in correct order.

“I think you play this game to be remembered, to win championships.”

First on that list is Frank Gore, who comes to town with the Colts this weekend having just moved into fifth place on the all-time rushing list (13,697), passing Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson. Next is Adrian Peterson (12,276), now with the Cardinals, and then comes Edgerrin James (12,246), who has been a Hall of Fame semifinalist each of the last three years and has another chance to be voted in this winter.

McCoy enters Sunday’s game with 9,805 career rushing yards and 78 total touchdowns, though he has never won a playoff game. Reaching 10,000 this week would take a Herculean – though not unprecedented – effort, but if he doesn’t get there Sunday, it should certainly happen later this month. (McCoy’s single-game high is 217 yards, which he set in December 2013, the week after Peterson used a 211-yard game to crack the 10,000-yard barrier for himself.)

McCoy will be the 30th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards, so long as he gets there before the Jets’ Matt Forte (9,740) and the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch (9,670). Reaching the milestone is a testament to both his longevity and his talent – and having a chance to hit it with his friend and idol Frank Gore in attendance? That’s just icing on the cake.

Still dazzling

Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy gets away from New England Patriots’ Devin McCourty in the first quarter. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Even as McCoy creeps closer to 30 – old, by running back standards – those in the game marvel that he hasn’t begun to show his age as he approaches a major milestone.

“Shady looks like he’s 22 running out there,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “I mean, he’s amazing.”

Pagano coached McCoy at the Pro Bowl one year and got a sense of how he stays so youthful.

“What a great young man – a guy who’s got a zest for life and personality coming out of the you-know-what,” Pagano said. “I’m sure his passion and energy is infectious. He’s a great player. He’s a mismatch. He’s a pain in the rear. You get him in space …”

And that’s when he really begins to amaze.

“He has what I call sneaky speed,” said Bills rookie defensive lineman Eddie Yarbrough, who has been left grasping at air more than once. “I’ve never seen a person kind of dazzle you, but at the same time, while you’re thinking about tackling him, he’s actually gaining yards and getting away from you. So while you think you’re closing on this guy, he already has a move cooked up for you.

“He’s like a chess player,” Yarbrough added. “You know how you think of a chess game? You would think that when you run, it’s, ‘All right, this guy’s right on top of me and I have to break him.’ But I think he’s thinking like, ‘All right, I’m already going to juke you, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do to the safety,’ and kind of has that next-level eyes. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

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Bills offensive line coach and run game coordinator Juan Castillo was with the Eagles when they drafted McCoy in 2009. Brian Westbrook began that season as the starter, but Castillo said there were already signs McCoy was special.

“He had great vision and great cutting ability and he could make people miss in space. Those are pretty key ingredients for great running backs,” Castillo said.

Well, sure, but doesn't that go for all second-round picks? Castillo smiled and shook his head no. Not like McCoy.

“That’s what people say, but not everybody can do that; not with pads on and in the heat of the battle,” Castillo said. “When they’re getting hit and hit, not everybody can continue to do that. I think that’s what you see in LeSean, he can continue to do that. And as the game gets going, he really gets stronger. … It takes more than one person to bring him down. People think it’s with his moves, but it’s with his vision and with the strength that he has. And I think that’s something that people don’t understand, how tough he is.”

That toughness also encapsulates being tough on himself, though that has its benefits.

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“He’s probably the most critical player I’ve ever been around of himself,” fullback Patrick DiMarco said. “When he has a bad read or he doesn’t put his foot in the ground in the right spot, he’s the first one to come back and be like, ‘Guys, that’s on me. That’s on me. I’ll get it better.’ Which just goes for the person he is. He takes responsibility for his actions. I also think that’s a reason he’s so good is he’s so critical of himself and he coaches himself up that well.

“When we were in San Diego, we ran a few toss-bounces where me and him were reading the guard, and once we read the guard, he reads me. So it’s kind of a multi-layered read for him. And when I came back to the sideline, I was like, ‘Hey, what’d you see?’ And he just, like, boom, boom, boom – ‘This guy fell inside, you bounced out, he hit your outside shoulder, I stuck up underneath and I bounced off that.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa, dude, we just got back to the sideline five seconds ago!’ He’s super sharp and super quick with the process of a play. … I learn something new every day watching tape with him.”

Castillo agreed. Even the little things McCoy does make him different.

“Sometimes he’ll come up and he’ll say, ‘Hey coach’ or ‘Hey guys, I missed a cut. Give me the play again and I’ll make the cut.’ That’s real, you know? For us, that’s big,” Castillo said. “Just like everybody in our business or your business or anybody’s, for someone to say ‘Hey, I made a mistake, give me another chance at it,’ that’s pretty special. And that’s pretty strong.”

Learning from Gore

Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts and Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings greet each other after the game on December 18, 2016 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Colts defeated the Vikings 34-6. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

As McCoy continues to chase new goals, longevity will become more important, which is among the reasons he finds Gore such an inspiration. McCoy isn’t one to seek out opponents after games to swap jerseys, but he said he has already reached out to Gore to make sure they find each other Sunday.

Gore is the oldest running back in the league at 34 and is tied with Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and John Riggins for the most 1,000-yard seasons at age 30 or older, with three. Only 12 players have ever recorded multiple seasons like that (including 10K club member Ricky Watters, who went to the same high school as McCoy, Harrisburg, Pa.’s Bishop McDevitt), and McCoy may need to join them to reach his goals.

McCoy has two years left on his contract with the Bills, but Gore doesn’t see him slowing down any time soon.

“What I love about LeSean is he has the hunger to be the best every year,” Gore said by phone from Indianapolis. “As long as he has that, he always wants to outdo his competition – he doesn’t care if it’s his class or younger guys. Even though they say he’s getting older, he’s still one of the best out there. He’s still looking young to me.”

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Gore and McCoy are represented by the same power agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and each player mentioned separately that they dislike how fans and those in the league pump up younger running backs while not giving older players the respect they deserve. Both recalled having lunch together during Super Bowl week in Houston, where they discussed which running backs have their respect and what it would take for others to achieve greatness.

“Just his mindset on who’s a good player, who’s not, who works hard, certain players that have arrived – that think they’ve arrived that haven’t,” McCoy said about what he learned most from their talk. “The way he talks about them is, ‘They could be so much better if they did this better, worked harder.’ And that’s a guy like Frank who’s No. 5 all-time, and he’s still trying to improve his game, still working hard, he’s still the first one in and last one to leave. He’s one of those guys.

“When I leave, I want to be remembered,” McCoy said. “I think it’s sacrifice and dedication that contributes to that.”

McCoy lamented that he hasn't been able to fully enjoy the 10K chase given how the Bills' season is going, but he disliked the idea that he is acutely aware of his place in history. He leaves it up to his friends and family to tell him which players he has passed on the all-time list or how many yards he needs for his next milestone, but his goals are always there in the back of his mind, driving him, and 10,000 yards isn’t enough.

On second thought, maybe McCoy is in touch with his standing among the game’s greats.

“A little bit,” he said. “Enough. I know what 12,000 would do for me.”

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